Boston Red Sox

By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Through 21 starts, compared with a year ago, Chris Sale has thrown 13.1 fewer innings and 183 fewer pitches. That is the equivalent of roughly two starts. And if you are the Red Sox, this is undoubtedly a good thing.

But let’s not go declaring the Columbus Day Sale a success just yet.

Here’s what Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters following Sale’s most recent outing, Sunday’s win over the Detroit Tigers: “The plan has worked so far. Most of his starts [during the second half of the season] are going to be with an extra day. And there’s one with two days. If he comes to me and says he wants to work on regular rest, we’ll make adjustments.”

Two things, the first of which is less important than the second:

1. With all due respect to Cora, Sale’s wishes should be irrelevant. The Red Sox should give Sale as much rest as possible. If he wants to pitch on the fifth day, too bad. There is no point now in veering off course.

2. The key phrase here? So far. Even Cora knows that the Red Sox haven’t yet reached the red zone when it comes to learning whether Sale will be stronger in September and, more importantly, October.

After all, Sale looked perfectly healthy and strong at this time a year ago. Here’s where what his numbers looked like after 21 starts in 2017:

(Courtesy Baseball-Reference.com)

And here are Sale’s totals through the same amount of starts this year:

(Courtesy Baseball-Reference.com)

Will it all pay off in the long run? It’s impossible to know yet. But what we do know is that the Red Sox truly need Sale if they are to make a run at another World Series. Whether the Sox won titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013, they had an ace pitching at a high level. Excluding a start in which he pitched with a bad ankle, Curt Schilling had a 1.37 ERA in the 2004 postseason. In 2007, Josh Beckett had a 1.20 ERA. In 2013, Jon Lester checked in at 1.56.

Here’s the thing that should concern you with Sale: what if this plan doesn’t work? Even before he arrived in Boston, Sale had a history of fading down the stretch, something that is not necessarily his fault. His career ERAs in August (3.22) and September (3.78) are his highest of any months during the season. (He is 25-29 in his career beginning on Aug. 1.) Sale looks like he’s built with toothpicks and popsicle sticks, and we all know the major league season is an interminable grind.

Jun 19, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (41) throws to the Minnesota Twins in the first inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Quick question: of all recent pitchers in Red Sox, who does Sale’s body type most closely resemble? One good answer: Clay Buchholz. (Sale is listed at 6-foot-6 and 180; Buchholz is listed at 6-foot-3 and 190.) On more than one occasion, Sale has been compared to Randy Johnson, who was 7-9 with a 3.50 ERA in his postseason career. And the one year that Johnson truly excelled in the postseason – 2001 – he had Schilling at his side.

If all of this sounds ominous, it isn’t … at least not necessarily. It just means that Sale’s physique requires great care and handling, something to which the Red Sox are now acutely aware. And there is no way of knowing if the Red Sox’ approach with their ace will work until we get to that time of year on which the Red Sox’ entire fortunes rest.

Columbus Day.

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.